Last week, my dear friend and intrepid former nun Angela Pasquier invited me to her comunidad to celebrate Purisima, the celebration of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Now, Angela could invite me to spend Purisima in a cardboard box with her and I'd accept. However, the additional treat of getting to travel to the famous "comunidades," the rural communities surrounding Bilwi, I would have to have grisi siknis not to accept.
For those who are unfamiliar with Catholic tradition, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin refers not to the conception of Jesus, but of Mary. According to Catholic doctrine, Mary was born without original sin. That doesn't mean she was virgin-born, like Jesus, it just means God removed from her the sinful nature inherent in all people from birth. This quality of Mary is celebrated on December 8, which also happens to be my birthday. Which is why it's fitting that my name is Kathryn, though perhaps my parents did not realize it, since Kathryn means "pure."
Angela's family lives in the auspiciously named town of Kilometro 43, so named because it lies 43 kilometers outside of Bilwi. Or at least it did, when there was a railroad, before the war. Along the current road, it's 47 kilometers away. But the name stuck. The community borders the slightly more well-known Mani Watla, which I heard of a few months back when it was said that two men there had been hacked to pieces with a machete, and then, still alive, set on fire, owing to accusations of witchcraft. I didn't quite make it there to get my National Park passport stamped.
The bus dropped us off in front of their house, and then we crossed a little creek on a log to get to the house. I was a little worried about keeling over under the lopsided weight of my baggage and because I had to stoop to grab the handrail. The kitten I was carrying from Angela's house in Bilwi was even less enthused about the crossing.
Bilwi is not exactly the heart of technological development, but Kilometro 43 is a step even farther back in time. There has been no electricity there since Hurricane Felix back in 2007, and cooking is done over wood and coal in a separate kitchen building. No running water, of course, except horizontally through the creek.
I'm used to not having electricity or even running water in my own house, but it's a little jarring and surreal to be somewhere unfamiliar in the dark. I just sat in the kitchen, the place where everyone gathers, and listened to the family chatting animatedly in Miskito in the dim shadows cast by a couple candles. From what I could understand, they talked about various health problems of people in the community and the failure of the doctors to treat them. A shy little girl of about 5quietly sat down next to me, and as the evening wore on gradually fell asleep against my shoulder, her face illumined by the glow of my candle.
Everything in the night was so quiet. There were no dogs barking, roosters crowing, cars passing by, people shouting. And for the first time in a while, I did not feel unsafe to be alone outside, despite the lack of light.
I went to sleep early that night, worn out by the bus ride, the language, and adjusting to a new environs. Everyone else worked on through the night, preparing nacatamales for the Purisima celebration the following day. They filled up a large steel trash can with nacatamales, which cooked through the night over an open fire.
The next day, December 7, is called the Griteria, or the Day of Shouting. Purisima is preceded by a novena, or 9 days of observance, and the Griteria is the last day. It is the big celebration day of Purisima, like New Year's Eve is the big celebration of the changing of the year. I went with one of Angela's sisters over to the house of another family member (somewhat easy to do, because most of Kilometro 43's residents are related), where we set up the altar to the Virgin where people would later gather for singing and prayers and nacatamales. We adorned the area with palm branches and balloons, the traditional celebration decor in these parts. Two little girls from the neighboring house ran up and started talking to me in a mix of Spanish and Miskito. One girl asked me a question in rapid-fire Miskito, and then the two girls giggled. I asked Angela's sister what she had said, and she replied, "Oh, you didn't catch that? She asked if you could fix the other girl's foot." Only then did I look down and notice that the other girl's foot was twisted, so she essentially walked on the top of her foot and her ankle. "No, I'm not a doctor," I replied, and the girls giggled again, apparently unconcerned about my lack of expertise in the medical and/or miracle department.
Around 2 in the afternoon, folks arrived to commence the Purisima celebration. We sang various hymns extolling the purity, beauty, and compassion of the Virgin, peppered with the traditional call-and-response shouts of "Viva la Virgen!" "Que viva!" and "Quien causa tanta alegria?" "La Concepcion de Maria!" That is, who causes so much happiness? The conception of Maria! As Lee pointed out, it should technically be WHAT causes so much happiness, since the subject is the conception, not Mary herself.
After the singing had ended, the gathered community received their nacatamales and moved on to another house to repeat the process. Tired from the morning activities, I skipped out on this house and the house that followed, choosing to return to Angela's house, where they had already prepared their altar for the fourth and last house visit of the Griteria celebration.
Shortly after sundown, people began to arrive, young and old alike crossing the log-bridge in the dark to fill out the yard in front of the altar and the house. Angela, in her typical lively energy, commenced with a round of shouting, threatening not to give out nacatamales if the crowd was not animated enough in its adoration of the Virgin. We then commenced with the same songs we had sung before. The repitition reminded me of Christmas caroling. There were readings and Scriptures, and Angela asked me to sing Ave Maria in Latin, since she had misplaced her recording. I readily agreed, then realized I had forgotten a chunk of the version I had sung in church back in college. I skipped over that part and hoped no one minded. At the end, Angela's father, a deacon in the local Catholic Church, gave me a special blessing and prayer for my birthday. It was a very special moment.
At eight o'clock, after six hours of visiting houses, the celebration had not yet ended. Everyone got their second round of nacatamales, after receiving threats that the Virgin was watching and looked unfavorably upon those who snuck into the line to get more than one nacatamal. They then headed off to the church for the final celebration. The pews were filled up, sprinkled with children falling asleep in their parents' laps. I was also very tired, but I could swear one of the crucifixes on the wall had a rasta hat on. I made a note to check it later, but the generator that was supplying the power gave out at the end, and I did not get the chance.
Again the singing commenced, followed by a section of testimonials. Various individuals got up and explained why they celebrated Purisima. Angela's mother, back at her house, had spoken of three consecutive visions she'd had of the Virgin at a time in her life when she was very depressed, encouraging her to take heart and keep moving forward. Some spoke of promises they had made in return for blessings, or thanksgiving for children healed. They prayed the rosary, which is for the most part the repitition of the Hail Mary, and then ended with a list of perhaps twenty epithets for the Virgin, from "Mother of God" and "Queen of Heaven" to the more enigmatic "House of Gold." The service over, they handed out coffee, juice, bread, and candy. I stole over to the children's side of the chapel so I could get juice instead of coffee.
And so ended my first marathon experience in Virgin adoration. I came to appreciate the affection Catholic Nicaraguans have for the peasant woman who loves them and intercedes on their behalf. There is reverence and honor for Jesus, but Mary is truly loved. Mary permits a kinder, more compassionate image of the divine which perhaps, in the Nicaraguan imagination, can only be found in feminine form because it defies machismo, while remaining sorely needed by the people. It seems to me that, despite her importance to the society, Mary remains constricted by this same machismo, that extoles her for her beauty, chastity, and obedience to God primarily and her prophetic calling for justice and the turning of society secondarily. Her elevation in the Purisima celebration took her away from the more human image of Mary I like to imagine, the one of a young woman who overcomes her own fears and misgivings to courageously play her role in the salvation story.